How Should Writers Respond To Terror Attacks?


London Bridge

At an early point in their careers, writers have to respond to a series of unspoken questions. What is our best format for communication? (performance, TV, literature – the disciplines are very different). What style suits us best? (fiction, non-fiction, genre, mainstream, small press) and if we choose fiction, do we reflect the present state of the world or overlook it?

We create problems for ourselves whatever we choose, which is why, I think, we now have so many novels set in the past. They bypass the need to consider these issues and tap into something more comfortable and pre-set in the reader’s mind. That’s not to say historical writers can’t change how we see the past. From Hilary Mantel to Lloyd Shepherd, there are writers who open fresh windows into history. Even fantasy can do this, from Susanna Clarke to Philip Pullman.

Setting a book in the present day but in the countryside also largely avoids the issue. We think of rural lives as being unchanged, although they change over time, and many modern writers reflect this. But to set a book in London as it now is requires a conscious decision on the part of the writer to either avoid or bring in social-political elements, and that’s where it gets tricky.

Multiculturalism is the easiest part; you expand your cast of characters to reflect that of the average street. Even police descriptions and investigations can be dealt with, as different units have different responsibilities. But acts of random violence, like the two attacks on London’s bridges, are harder to respond to, and risk altering or completely derailing what you set out to write. You start with a murder mystery and end up writing about terrorism.

The logical solution, as always, is to follow what the readers do and accurately reflect the lives of Londoners. If you’re writing an entertainment (i.e. not issuing a polemic) you treat it just as a London thing, by acknowledging and respecting tragic events but considering them within the wider context of city life. In a city approaching 9 million, such events need to take on the correct proportion.

For evidence, look at the online reaction to the New York Times’ claim that London was left ‘reeling’ by the latest attack – some very funny posts. And even in the event of police telling people to run, this chap on the right wasn’t going to leave his beer. Or as someone pointed out on Twitter, ‘It’s London bridge ffs he’s paid £5.50 for that pint’.


17 comments on “How Should Writers Respond To Terror Attacks?”

  1. Steveb says:

    Mark Billingham’s new book is about honour crimes and i am strongly of the opinion that there is a link from this to the manchester bombing, which was about hating girls dressing up, not the ‘west’ invading the ‘east’. Just for instance.

    There are important social issues around city and country, maybe this is one of the most important issues today. The cities in England voted remain, the country voted leave (heavily) and this city/country divide is nothing different in Poland or Turkey or Pakistan. And when you ‘import’ people from the Pakistan ‘country’ to the British city you import a lot of attitudinal stuff which gets bundled as islam, especially because imams are chosen by the community, but is really about the society.

  2. admin says:

    A good point Steve. I’m inclined to believe that there’s more dissatisfaction because of westernised girls than abstract ideology – these are young male attackers.

  3. brooke says:

    Some U.S. writers have tackled the mindset of terror attacks (domestic or from the trauma of migration) with frankness and imagination. Their insights into motivation/psychology, particularly tensions about sex, are so on point, as validated by the attackers’ writings and statements.

    It’s hard living in a 21st century urban culture; having a “community” pouring nostalgia into your ears for a homeland (or an ideal Confederate South in our case) that never existed adds to the burden. It takes a very talented writer to tackle the emotional complexity. Or a very wise society.

  4. Vivienne says:

    I can see there is a difficulty writing about the present, with a book set in London. Things are moving so fast and a book must be in genesis for a year or more, start to bookshop. I read a book in 2013 that was set then but had been written about ten years earlier. The IRA were still bombing us – the author hadn’t foreseen agreement there, and a computer expert in the book said he could find some information needed by trawling the internet and that it would take three days – the sort of stuff that’s instant now.

    The world seems more volatile now – Trump could go any minute, the Middle East is hardly stable, even the outcome of this election might bring unpredicted changes. Good luck with the crystal ball.

  5. DC says:

    Changing deeply held views (or ones where there is a significant advantage to the controlling group) is no simple matter and has no quick solutions. Look at our own (mostly anglo-saxon) history.

    In medieval times unmarried women could own property. Once married property was jointly owned, though with reduced benefits to then woman as opposed to the man. Overtime this was changed to become law that women were chattel and had no rights. This continued until 1870 when the Married Women’s Property act was passed.You have to wait another almost 60 years until women have equal inheritance rights and suffrage.

    A further close on 100 years later and you still have difference in average salary and opportunity. It is not so long ago that a certain elected political representative complaining because the “sluts” don’t even clean behind fridges properly. I’d count that as a regressive and aggressive statement of a radicalised nature.

    So in about 1000 years we have gone from somewhat equal rights for women to them being property of men and back to somewhat equal rights again and that is with 50% of the population being specifically discriminated against.

    As you how you should respond to terror attacks. If you did a B&M book set in the mid 70s to the end of the millenium, would you include IRA bombings, in London in the story? Is there a difference between the current situation and that point in time?

  6. Ian Mason says:

    > If you did a B&M book set in the mid 70s to the end of the millenium, would you include IRA bombings, in London in the story? Is there a difference between the current situation and that point in time?

    Yes, there is a difference. The reactions of Londoners are very much the same, but politics and the media have changed almost beyond recognition.

    My attitude, and I suspect the attitude of most Londoners, to attacks on London is very much now what it was back in the days of the IRA. We just got on with it and didn’t allow ourselves to be terrorized. Believe me, I came closer to several bombings than was comfortable and had more than one ‘if I’d been fives minutes earlier/later’ experiences.

    Margaret Thatcher had the Brighton hotel she was staying in blown up by the IRA and, unlike our current PM, she didn’t go onto TV the next day and use the situation as an opportunity to justify more attacks on the freedoms that she is supposed to be defending from the terrorists.

    What is conspicuously different is the interaction between politics and the media. A bombing in the 90’s was reported and that was it. As further news came in, it was reported, in the normal regular news broadcasts. We didn’t get a stream of continuous coverage that pushes everything else out of the way and obsesses over every detail. It’s almost guaranteed with that media pressure that some weak willed politician will decide “Something must be done!” and come out with some half-baked, unthought-out, reactionary response that is guaranteed to make the situation worse, not better. And, needless to say, they oblige. Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins were on Fox News advocating the internment of Muslims, a policy so abhorrent that even Fox News felt the need to explicitly say how “reprehensible” they felt the idea was.

  7. Steveb says:

    Our history is mostly Norman, surely?
    I don’t see the argument about ‘we’ took 1000 years. Who is this ‘we’? How many generations does it take to become part of this ‘we’ exactly? Do the Hgenots count yet?
    Anyway, I think to respond artistically is not to write a book about terrorists, it is to write about the people and issues and societies behind, and also historical parallels. Maybe there could be something ‘peculiar’ there.
    I thought Billingham’s book was his best since Lifeless by the way.

  8. Jan says:

    Wouldn’t say it was mostly Norman at all. Last thousand years maybe. But there’s lots before
    Lots after hopefully

  9. Vivienne says:

    It’s not difficult to still identify a Norman/Saxon divide. But the Saxons were interlopers too. Apparently the Stonehenge people all went somehow. There’s also the belief that the Celtic fringe are just that because they sailed in from far off and settled all along the western coasts. It seems, though, that there must be something in the grass or something that turns as all quintessentially English.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    I remember my father filling in a census return and wanting to know how long you had to be in this country before you were just Canadian. (His father was born near Glasgow but was raised in Nova Scotia. His mother’s family had been here since 1759. Only the Quebecois would have called them new-comers.) Even I have had to do the same, although they don’t seem to ask that question now. Now they do ask if you “see yourself” as First Nations. I’ve sometimes wondered how people answer that.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Why couldn’t they have run into the library and hidden among the shelves. Terrorists don’t use libraries. Not properly at least. Facetiousness is uncalled for I know , but all the round the clock coverage and the elevated voices of the commentators is so unhelpful, to say nothing of the repeated and repeated details and quotes. Put it on the regular broadcast and leave it until the next broadcast unless there is something that affects the behaviour of the public.

  12. Jan says:

    You know you are right Helen there are a few differences between the IRA outrages of thirty or forty years ago and the recent outrages. Here’s my list for what its worth:-

    1. The IRA terrorist wanted to get home (like you did.) This influenced the terrorists acts (s) he would commit.
    2. The idea of deliberately ramming people with vehicles or running through crowds stabbing people was a non starter because of point 1 and being of at root different sides of the same mindset terrorists /freedom fighters would not contemplate this type of slaughter.
    3.There were no 24 hour rolling news channels which will report any terrorist strike into the ground. Reporting on everything from details the investigation to concerts held in memory of the victims. These atrocities fill schedules.

  13. Jan says:

    I messed up explaining point 2 the security services and the terrorists of previous terrorist campaign s were essentially of a similar mindset. This is not to say there was in any way a meeting of minds or any form of gentleman’s agreement but there was a common wish to get home at the end of the evening and to not die in carrying out an act of terrorism or hopefully not to die in the prevention of same.

    When you are combating a group of such a medieval -pre medieval ? believers,who are of the opinion they are off to have an encounter with 20 odd Virgins in heaven once they have activated the suicide vest or met up with the old Bill that’s a tough one to tackle.
    Sorry for not getting this across on first attempt.

  14. DC says:

    >Our history is mostly Norman, surely?
    Not really. Whilst Common Law was introduced by the Normans, their legal system wasn’t as well developed as the Anglo-Saxon one, so many Anglo-Saxon laws were just incorporated. The Normans did introduce some diminution of rights of married women and female inheritance, in particular.

    Then, of course there is the strong Germanic influence starting 300 years ago and continuing, with a hint of Scots and Dutch in between.

    >Yes, there is a difference. The reactions of Londoners are very much the same, but politics and the media have changed almost beyond recognition.

    I certainly agree with that.

    >You know you are right Helen there are a few differences between the IRA outrages..

    I disagree. Both try achieve a goal by means of fear and force and an outrage is still an outrage, whatever the motivation. I see no difference close quarter attacks and indiscriminate bombing by remote control.

  15. Jan says:

    Except to commit a close quarters attack you have to be willing sacrifice your own life in order to commit this form of carnage it’s an inevitable part of the deal that the perpetrators die DC. The Irish freedom fighters were of the live to fight another day variety. It might have been their exposure to Judeo-Christian thought maps during their upbringing or it might have been knowing the right time to jump off the bus. But this time it’sall a bit different.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Being a bit different certainly doesn’t make for a preference one way or the other on the part of the bystanders.

  17. Jan says:

    No I’m probably coming at this from a slightly different angle sorry you are both quite right the victim ends up equally dead. No matter what the make model and type of the terrorist.

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